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Why the army should not be glued to counter-insurgency

By R N Ravi
March 08, 2013 15:00 IST
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The equation between the army and its countrymen in a democratic country should be one of mutual pride and implicit trust. Protracted deployment of the army on the home-turf tends to skew the equation. The people tend to perceive it as the occupation-army, says R N Ravi.

Union finance minister and former home minister P Chidambaram, while delivering a lecture at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi on February 6, lamented over the government’s helplessness in making the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act a more ‘humanitarian’ law due to resolute opposition to it from the army.

He gave an impression that although the government, in tune with the legal, moral and political imperatives of the issue, was keen on reforming the much-hated act, it was being thwarted by the army. It is a disconcerting signal for Indian democracy where civilian supremacy over the armed forces is believed established.

Although the army may have its reasons for insisting on blanket impunity for its actions from judicial scrutiny as an operational pre-condition in counter-insurgency, as it happens in a theatre of war, what is intriguing is its uncanny unwillingness to appraise the collateral costs of its protracted presence in a theatre of internal conflict and have an exit road map.

The army is heavily entrenched in the north-east and Jammu and Kashmir. In J&K, Pakistan’s sustained overt and covert support to militancy has altered the character of the conflict. Here the conflict is not entirely internal. The army pegs its presence in the J&K with Pakistan’s persistent interest in the state even though militancy is at an all-time low.

However, the scenario is different in the north-east where insurgencies are home grown and sustained largely with indigenous resources. At times hostile external forces do try to fish in the troubled waters and have rendered limited logistic assistance to the militants, but it is nobody’s case that a foreign country is deeply invested in stoking insurgency in the north-east.

In over half the century, scenario in the north-east has undergone much change. The region is no more a terra-incognita as used to be the case in early decades of Independence although the level of mutual ignorance between the region and the rest of the country continues to be disturbingly high.

Overall economic growth and rising opportunities for education, job and better life have made the mainstream India a destination for the ambitious youth from the region. Improved rail, road and air connectivity has facilitated their mobility. Today their presence is ubiquitous all over the country. In the last over a decade increasing exchanges between the region and the rest of the country have blunted the edge of insurgency and brought about morphological transformation in its character.

The change has been far more perceptible in recent years. Insurgencies and related violence have sharply declined. Tripura and Meghalaya are almost free of militancy. In Assam it is largely rhetorical. In Nagaland counter-insurgency got on low key since August1997 following ceasefire with the NSCN/IM and there has been no counterinsurgency since April 2001 when the NSCN/K, the other Naga militia also signed similar pact with Delhi.

In Manipur by 2005 the active insurgency got confined to Meitei militias with resonance only in the Imphal valley, as by then Naga and Kuki-Zomi militias who had challenged the state from their respective hills begun talking ‘peace’ with Delhi.

Insurgency as an organised resistance to the Indian state no longer exists in the north-east. The region is precariously poised for a change. To consolidate the gains and restore enduring normalcy it requires inclusive politics and muscular policing.

The excessive presence of military boots on the ground is proving counter productive. Strong empirical evidence exists to show that protracted deployment of the army sustains the militancy.

The entire 3rd Corps, two of the three divisions of the 4th Corps, over 45 battalions of the Assam Rifles besides scores of the central para-military forces and the state police are involved in counter-insurgency in the north-east. In view of the quantum improvement in the security scenario, the top brass should reflect over the need for the army to remain so heavily committed to counter-insurgency in the region.

Protracted deployment of the army in counter-insurgency, especially on the home turf, has toxic implications for the restoration of durable peace. The rule of law, the lynchpin of a stable, democratic society crumbles. The Justice K N Saikia Commission on ‘extra-constitutional’ killings in Assam during 1998- 2001 has poignantly illuminated this grim by-product of such a scenario.

The commission, in its report submitted in 2007, has concluded how the culture of legal impunity in which the army operated had infected even the police, as the two operated on the same ground and often side by side, resulting in subversion of the rule of law and extra-constitutional killings in Assam. The situation is no different in other ‘disturbed areas’ in the region.

Tactical imperatives of the forces under different commands waging counterinsurgency in the same theatre are not always congruent, notwithstanding the loosely constituted institution of ‘unified headquarters’ under the civilian administration of the state that is expected to streamline them. Quite often they are divergent.

Commanders of the army at the tactical level often get beyond combating the militants and get into the game of making and breaking the militant outfits. In abstract all these may appear relevant to defeating insurgency. However, when played on the home turf -- within own country, the game of engineered divisions eventually end up in pernicious multiplications of militant outfits and further vitiation of the security environment. The north-east is replete with such examples.

A telling illustration of how the ground forces under different commands operate at times at cross-purposes is exasperating failure of Chidambaram, the then home minister in getting dismantled the ‘Rocket Camp’, a notorious garrison of a Naga militia at Salang village in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh in 2010.

Following torrents of public complaints of depredations including rampant extortion, forcible abduction of young boys for recruitment and young girls as comfort women by the militants of this camp, Chidambaram directed the army, the force responsible for the area, to dismantle it. The militants had set up this camp in blatant violation of the ‘ceasefire’ agreement between them and the Union government that did not permit them to have a camp outside the Nagaland state.

The force commander scoffed at the home minister’s instructions and disdainfully repudiated him. He needed them as a tactical requirement to keep the rival militias in check.

An unsavory situation was created in 2005, when ignoring the sentiments of the Manipur government, the army hatched a ceasefire with a host of Kuki-Zomi militias in the state. Soon the ill-conceived ceasefire became orphaned. Neither the state government nor the home ministry took its ownership for over four years. Finally a reluctant home ministry bailed out the army in 2009, by persuading the state government into eventually accepting part ownership.

An environment of open-ended impunity takes an insidious toll on the operational discipline of the force. Notwithstanding lofty strategic objectives understood and spelt out by the higher command, the tactical commanders, in their enthusiasm, stretch the limits of law and at times cross it. Whenever they do so, it erodes the cachet of the army.

Incidents like mid-night abduction of Th Manorama, an young lady from Imphal and killing her after rape by the Assam Rifles on July 11, 2004 and subsequent street protests by a large number of naked women with banners like “Indian Army Rape Us” and “Indian Army Takes Our Flesh” in Imphal, robbery at the house of Surajit Gogoi of Jorhat, Assam on the night of December 21, 2011 by a contingent of 3rd Corps, Dimapur and an army colonel caught while smuggling drugs across Myanmar on the last February 23 get seared into popular imagination and cause irredeemable harm to the reputation and efficiency of the army.

The equation between the army and its countrymen in a democratic country should be one of mutual pride and implicit trust. Protracted deployment of the army on the home-turf tends to skew the equation. The people tend to perceive it as the occupation-army.

Some three years back the army stood firm against home ministry’s urgings to move into the hinterland for anti-Maoist operations. The army was right. It is not to fight its citizens. The generals need to demonstrate similar audacity also in other theatres of low-intensity conflicts.

It is in the larger interest of the country that the generals shake off their strategic inertia. Instead of being entangled in low-intensity internal conflicts, they should prepare the army for the ever-evolving contours of unconventional wars of the present century. They need to look at China which is steadfastly modernising its army, has already acquired global pre-eminence in the cyber war-fare, developed capabilities to target critical infrastructures in several countries including the US and fabricated un-manned long distance aerial attack vehicles equipped with indigenous navigation system. All these have enhanced our strategic vulnerabilities.

R N Ravi is a retired special director of the Intelligence Bureau. He can be reached at


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